Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Stigmata

By Marc Savlov

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

D: Rupert Wainwright; with Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce, Nia Long, Thomas Kopache, Ann Cusack. (R, 102 min.)

What is it about Catholicism that has inspired so many filmmakers to plumb its tenets and rituals in search of that certain spooky frisson that transforms a middling horror show into an outright shriekfest? The Vatican's ancient rules of engagement against Lucifer -- the ritual of exorcism and so on -- play a part, of course, as does the Church's penchant for highly stylized rites and ceremonies (transubstantiation remains a tough one to beat). Much of it, though, has to do with the mysteries inherent in the Vatican itself, a theocratic body rife with political intrigue and presumed mysteries not meant for the layman. You just don't get that kind of conspiratorial kink with, say, Lutheranism these days, and the mystical Judaic Kabbalah (resurrected to fine effect last year in Darren Aronofsky's brilliant ) is usually presented as being so metaphysically obscure as to be well-nigh incomprehensible. Catholicism, then, wins by default. Commercial and music video mainstay Rupert Wainwright is the most recent filmmaker to tackle the supernatural mysteries of that particular faith, and though you can feel him straining to curdle your blood and shake your soul (or lack thereof), the only question audiences are likely to be asking their higher power in the wake of viewing the film is, "What the fuck?" Arquette plays Pittsburgh hipster hairstylist Frankie Paige, who, as the film opens, receives a rosary in the mail from her mother, vacationing in South America. Unknown to either women is the fact that the beads have been stolen from a renegade cleric in the wake of his death. In no time, Frankie is suffering mightily from stigmata, the physical manifestation of the wounds of Christ, while spouting crimson freshets of gore and generally getting the scenery all gummy. And it's not like this is happening in the privacy of her own home, either -- onboard the subway, she undergoes public flagellation by an appropriately invisible force, a fact dutifully recorded by the train's security camera. The tape of the bloody event makes its way to Vatican City, where Father Andrew Kiernan (Byrne) -- the Church's chief religious phenomena investigator and, like Father Karras in The Exorcist, a priest of dubious faith -- reviews it and promptly jets off to Pittsburgh to save the day. The central mystery in Stigmata isn't "why is this happening?" but "what is happening?" -- a question minus a suitable answer for the duration of the film. Wainwright and writer Tom Lazarus toss in all manner of diversionary subplots, none of which make even the slightest sense and serve only to further muddle a film already considerably more puzzling than a monochromatic Rubik's Cube. For their part, Byrne and Arquette have all the chemistry of a pair of wet napkins. That's not surprising since Wainwright drenches his film, literally, in all manner of precipitation, shooting not day-for-night, but wet-for-dry; he doesn't need a light meter, he needs a Shop Vac. Ultimately about as resonant and satisfying as the flash 'n' trash music videos it closely resembles, Stigmata is much less a horror film than simply a horrible film.

0 Stars


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